This is The Ambassadors (1533), the celebrated painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. It’s full of noteworthy symbols of exploration, but what’s that odd skewed element at the bottom?

If you view the canvas from a narrow angle, the image resolves into a skull:

This is an early example of anamorphic perspective, an invention of the early Renaissance. It’s thought that Holbein intended that the painting would be hung in a stairwell, when people ascending the stairs would view the image from the proper angle and get a gruesome surprise.

Why? That’s an unanswered question.

An All-Purpose Anthem

Americans think of the song “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” as a patriotic anthem — which is ironic, because everyone else does, too. We stole the tune from the British, who know it as “God Save the Queen,” and the same melody has served as the national anthem of Denmark, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, and Liechtenstein.

When England met Liechtenstein in a Euro 2004 qualifying football match, they had to play the same music twice.

Fayum Mummy Portraits

This is Eutyches, a young boy who died in Egypt during the Roman Empire. How do we know this? Because this portrait was stuffed inside his mummy.

This was actually a common practice in the Fayum region of ancient Egypt, and it’s given us some of the best-preserved paintings from ancient times.

Artists would paint the portraits on wooden panels, using hot, pigmented wax, and they’ve survived remarkably well in the region’s dry heat.

CAT scans show that the portraits match their mummies in age and sex, and they’re strikingly naturalistic, though reportedly a little formulaic.

Many, like Eutyches, were children, a sad mark of the era’s low life expectancy.

Matisse Inverted

In 1961, Henri Matisse’s painting Le Bateau was accidentally hung upside down in New York’s Museum of Modern Art for 47 days. 116,000 visitors had passed through the gallery before the mistake was discovered.

“Gruesomely Bad Taste”

Critics pan great art:

  • Moby Dick: “Raving and rhapsodizing in chapter after chapter … sheer moonstruck lunacy.” (London Morning Chronicle)
  • Rigoletto: “The weakest work of Verdi. It lacks melody. This opera has hardly any chance of being kept in the repertoire.” (La Gazette Musicale de Paris)
  • Cezanne’s paintings: “He chooses to daub paint on a canvas and spread it around with a comb or a toothbrush. This process produces landscapes, marines, still lifes, portraits … if he is lucky. The procedure somewhat recalls the designs that schoolchildren make by squeezing the heads of flies between the folds of a sheet of paper.” (Le Petit Parisien)
  • Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1: “The concerto will never be played by anyone on earth. … Prokofiev wouldn’t grant an encore. The Russian heart may be a dark place, but its capacity for mercy is infinite.” (The New York Times)
  • Buster Keaton’s The General: “A mixture of cast iron and jelly.” (The New York Times)
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: “Pursues its theme of false identity with such plodding persistence that by the time the climactic cat is let out of the bag, the audience has long since had kittens.” (Saturday Review)

Henry Fielding wrote, “Now, in reality, the world have paid too great a compliment to critics, and have imagined them to be men of much greater profundity then they really are.”

Bitterroot Blaze

Firefighter John McColgan “just happened to be in the right place at the right time” to take this photo on Aug. 6, 2000, while fighting a 100,000-acre blaze in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest.

He was standing on a bridge over the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, and shot the photo with a Kodak DC280 digital camera.

The elk were gathering at the river, he says. “They know where to go, where their safe zones are. A lot of wildlife did get driven down there to the river. There were some bighorn sheep there. A small deer was standing right underneath me, under the bridge.”